I recently attended a film premiere for a story I was writing. I was ushered across a tiny corner of the red carpet, a part where I’d be out of view of photographers. Despite the festival staffer’s best efforts, media people like me who were forced to cross (to get inside the theater) grabbed attention away from the real stars. While I shuffled by with my head down, a photographer looked at me for a moment like I was famous before turning away to capture one of the film’s subjects. I took the opportunity to fantasize about how he was sure I was actually Tracee Ellis Ross trying to slip sheepishly by, unnoticed. I imagined that instead of snapping my pic, he’d decided to be nice and respect that common New York City celebrity desire not to be photographed. Minutes later I chastised myself—that I spun this whole narrative, that I felt glamorous about crossing a tiny patch of red carpet for a documentary about black suffering was, indeed, gross.
That fantasy isn’t, unfortunately, isolated. I’ve had visions of grandeur before at movie theaters. And it all boils down to this place: New York City! Oh! How this town can lead even the most unpretentious among us down a path of self-centered destruction. And, Oh! How idle chatter around the popcorn stand can make even the biggest cinephile feel like an ignorant and provincial square. And Oh! How the ignorant provincial square (me!) can feel, at times, like a fucking ignoramus.
As a young kid I’d go with my white father to see films at the now-shuttered Lincoln Plaza Cinemas on the Upper West Side, where I grew up. Everyone else in the theater was always an older, creakier, meaner, bad-breath version of my dad. Before a film began a couple of the movie-goers would scream-talk at each other about how lacking the upcoming programming was, or how much so-and-so director had “gone to shit.” Once, in the middle of a film, someone unwrapped a tuna sandwich so loudly and so slowly I thought maybe the person might be suffering a stroke, but was reassured of his health minutes later when (after I quietly asked my dad to explain a moment in a foreign film about war that went over my tween head) the tuna man hissed at me.
Older and individuating, I’d skip the always snaking line at the Angelika and sidle up to my friend Oren with just a kiss on the cheek as he collected tickets from the plebs. There the crowd was a bit more diverse (in age only of course) but the pre-film conversations were always the same: everyone talking very loudly so others could hear about their very important opinions on this-or-that film they’d recently seen. A big name-drop here, and a “oh I didn’t realize Mark worked on that film,” there.
The city set a terrible precedent for me: I began to understand film-going—sitting in what are supposed to be the darkest, most anonymous and unassuming places—as the most important way to express my cultural and social capital.
But then I moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, the greatest film city in America!
Every consequential film I’d seen before meeting Grace had been a circumstance of growing up in New York City, not in the least because I was curious—I really wasn’t! Osmosis got me in the door but a fiery first-generation Vietnamese gal from the suburbs of Chicago, whose wardrobe consisted only and always of button up cotton shirts and cigarettes, and whose sardonic wit dazzled me, helped me find my way to the beauty of cinema outside of the hellscape in which I was raised.
When Godard’s Masculin Féminin came to the Lagoon in Minneapolis six of us piled into our friend’s car and sped out of sleepy St. Paul. The theater wasn’t populated at all like the ones I went to growing up—it was full of young University of Minnesota dweebs, a couple of moms with their girlfriends in mall clothes, and us liberal arts assholes who didn’t dress as well as our east coast elite counterparts. There were, of course, those three or four lone aging white men you see at every independent movie theater (they’re hired, right?). But I reveled in this new experience: There were no couples scream-talking their seemingly endless French New Wave knowledge, no cranky olds complaining about how the theater’s programming was “skewing too young.” No one, no one said anything annoying. In my (perhaps made-up) memory I overheard a woman talk about her son’s soccer team. It was all so perfectly banal. There we were, just a collection of Godard fans eating popcorn that came with the butter already on it, without pretense or a need to be seen.
After graduating from college, I moved to Chicago, where Grace moved too. Just when the weather began to turn we went to see a wonderful lesser known Philippe Garrel film, J’entends plus la guitare, at the Gene Siskel downtown. Grace had made some film friends by then and she introduced me to a few. Sure, some were wearing black, and I stood by her while they talked about how excited they were for winter programming. But there was no posturing, no dueling about knowledge. Name-dropping was an act of inclusion. The experience I’d go on to have in Chicago didn’t mimic being surrounded by that beautiful alchemy of randos in Minneapolis. Instead, I encountered a lovely community of film-goers, filmmakers, thinkers and writers who’d see each other around town at Chicago’s independent cinemas, always boasting about one another’s work.
I began to love visiting other cities’ cinemas. I delighted in watching Marie Antoinette in Paris where French people laughed, then scoffed, then booed at the screen. During my short stint in Costa Rica, I greatly enjoyed easing into a luxury seat at the CineVIP for a blockbuster, hearing Costa Ricans laugh at the serious moments in an American action film.
Perhaps, now that I think about it, New York isn’t really the culprit. I live here, I see lots of movies here. I see movies and enjoy the experience at the very cinema this essay sits in. But maybe it is important for us to leave New York sometimes, to knock our egos down a peg, sit in a foreign land, like New Jersey, and lose ourselves in something I never even discussed in this essay: the actual film. •
Collier Meyerson is a contributor at The Nation magazine and a fellow at The Nation Institute. She lives on the Lower East Side.